DREAMers Lead Hunger Strikes and Boycotts in Detention

Young undocumented people organize from with an Arizona detention center.

BySTEVE FISHER <a href="https://twitter.com/Stevelfisher" target="External">(@Stevelfisher) </a>
August 06, 2013, 10:27 AM

Aug. 6, 2013&#151; -- Update, 5 p.m.: Lizbeth Mateo and Marco Saavedra, along with the rest of the Dream 9, are now eligible for asylum.

A group of young undocumented immigrants who sought to cross the border in Arizona several weeks ago moved a step closer to a possible release from custody on Monday.

See Also: DREAMers Cross the Border to Raise Awareness About Deportations

The Dream 9, as the young people call themselves, entered the U.S. from Mexico to protest immigration policies that have deported more than 1.6 million people since 2009.

Seven of the nine DREAMers were able to show that they have a "credible fear" of returning to their home country, a step forward in their request for asylum, according to the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), the group that organized the action.

The status of the other two DREAMers, Marco Saavedra and Lizbeth Mateo, has not yet been disclosed.

Meanwhile, all nine young people remain in custody at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decides whether to release them while they fight their cases.

ICE declined a request for comment.

"Since their credible fear test has been passed, there is no reason for them to wait months and months to be released," NIYA organizer Mohammad Abdollahi said last night at a vigil in front of the detention center. "These folks are not a flight risk. They all were trying to come into the country."

At the vigil, more than a dozen family members and supporters stood in a circle, praying for the detained. Among them was one mother whose son was not with the Dream 9 but had since sought their support regarding his deportation case. "I know that you feel our pain," she said in a prayer, her voice trembling.

The action has brought more deportee cases to light, according to organizers. And the Dream 9 have helped migrants connect with legal support, even while in detention themselves.

Abdollahi said that they have been presented with 46 cases, and they plan to help those detainees seek release.

Meanwhile, the Dream 9 also organized a two-day hunger strike in the detention center, and were joined by 70 other women, according to Abdollahi.

At the moment, he said there are a dozen women who are on a partial fast, eating only one meal a day and refusing to go outside or buy anything from the store in the detention center.

"They are doing an all-around boycott of sorts," Abdollahi said.

But the action has not gone without retaliation from prison officials. Dream 9 detainee Claudia Amaro said in a phone interview on Monday that there has been a backlash against inmates who've tried to connect with the DREAMers. "Every girl that approached us, [the guards] interview them, they harass them and ask what we were talking about," said the 37-year-old.

And as a result of their organizing, some of the Dream 9 have been confined to solitary confinement, which means they are restricted to their cells 23 hours a day.

One of the DREAMers, María Peniche, remains on suicide watch after dropping into depression due to the restriction.

Peniche is currently serving 15 days in solitary confinement after jumping up along with fellow DREAMer, Lulu Martínez, during dinnertime and beginning a chant of "Undocumented! Unafraid!" in Spanish, according to Colorlines.

A lawyer for the group, Margo Cowan, said in an interview on Monday that that the two young people were punished because "they were attempting to encourage other female detainees to participate in the hunger strike." A request for comment from the detention center was not immediately returned on Monday.

The DREAMers are highlighting, in part, the failure of the Obama administration to use discretionary power to stop the deportation of non-criminals, and young people brought to the U.S. as children.

That message has spread through news outlets and on social media, and some in Washington are paying attention, as well.

According to NIYA, 42 congressmen have signed letters requesting the release of the Dream 9. Perhaps the most high-profile support of the group came from Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who gave a speech on the floor of Congress requesting they be freed. In addition, vigils have sprouted up across the country, and thousands of signatures have been gathered through a NIYA petition demanding their release.

But not everyone is in favor of the action the DREAMers have taken.

One of the opponents is David Leopold, a prominent immigration lawyer who has been widely quoted in his opposition to the Dream 9 team, saying it was a "publicity stunt" and that it distracted from the issue of immigration reform.

When asked for a response to Leopold, Cowan said the Dream 9 action is no different than a protest on Thursday in Washington, D.C., where activists were arrested after stopping traffic outside the Capitol.

"I don't know why he's saying that about these young people," she said. "I didn't hear him criticize one of the vice presidents of SEIU, Frank Sharry and all the other prominent national leaders who were arrested in Washington last week."

Meanwhile, the Dream 9 continue to raise awareness of abuse within the detention center, and seem unbowed in their fight to bring immigrant families to the forefront of the national immigration reform debate.

"We want to go home, and we're really determined to get home," Amaro said. "We have to fight for what we want, and what we think is right."

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